I wrote this article for Philippine Online Chronicles.
To take a photo is to make a choice. It is to select a particular view from all other possible views.
Each photo is therefore an embodiment of the photographer’s subjectivity. It is about the photographer in as much as it is about the object being photographed. But what if the photographer is at the same time the photographed?
The dissemination of mobile technologies among a significant section of the population, especially a middle class characterized by relative economic self-sufficiency arising from the possession of certain skills or special training, has given a new twist to this question.
It has led to the rise of “selfie” – “self-photography” or the act of taking your own picture for the purpose of sharing them in social networking sites.
Alienation and Fragmentation
Today up to 60 percent of the world’s wealth and economic production is in the hands of the eight most powerful monopoly capitalist countries led by the United States. Even as they comprise a mere 14 percent of the global population.
On the other hand, the rest of the world has been divided among these world powers as colonies and semi-colonies that serve as their source of cheap labor, natural resources, and semi-manufactures as well as a dumping ground of surplus capital and manufactured goods.
This unjust global system has bred chronic crisis, extreme poverty and inequality, especially in the dependent countries like the Philippines wherein 76 percent of the Gross Domestic Product is in the hands of the 40 richest families while 65 million Filipinos live on less than $2 a day.
The breakneck speed with which communication technologies have developed and the possibilities it opened up for quickening the pace of business and financial transactions only furthered this dynamic.
The impoverished workers in the assembly lines have always been alienated as they are assigned a separate role in economic production but without seeing the totality of the process or the final products of their labor.
But the intensification of the global operations of multinational monopolies and the bombarding of consumer brands in the global market has added the fragmentation of identity on top of this alienation.
The popularity of selfies can then, perhaps be explained by its ability to give a sense of wholeness amidst the alienated and fragmented experience of today’s crisis-ridden world.
The propagation of various distractions embedded in new information technologies seek to build a bubble that keeps realities of social injustices away from everyone’s attention. As cultural theorist Jodi Dean points out, we don’t anymore need spectacles staged by politicians and the mass media to do this.
“We can make and be our own spectacles – and this is much more entertaining. There is always some-thing new on the internet. Corporate and state power need not go to the expense and trouble to keep people entertained, passive, and diverted. We prefer to do that ourselves,” said Dean.
Consumerism and Individualism
Selfies are primarily the domain of a middle class population that have privileged access to these new technologies. According to Prof. Daryl Mendoza of the University of San Carlos Philosophy Department, selfies can be understood as a new way of seeking for recognition in these digital times.
“This desire for recognition is a question of how I want others to see me. This leads us to the question, what do I show them? How and in what way do I show myself?” asks Mendoza.
And it is this typical petty bourgeois yearning for acceptance in the upper rungs of the social pyramid that is high jacked by corporate profit interests and its drive to spread unbridled consumerism. This is the key behind the trending of selfies in social media.
“In this confusion of appearing, the source of identity is not within but without. Who am I is not in me, but outside me; the objects around me lends me my identity,” said Mendoza.
The increasing alienation and fragmentation of life brought about by the dizzying pace of contemporary capitalism is compelling many among the intermediate classes to manipulate the commodities around them to fill in the absence of who they are, the precariousness of their social status.
“What I consume, I show. What I show is what I want others to recognize me… It is linked to the background of my shot, to the shirt I wear, to the book I read, to the things that surround me. Or the absence of them; that, too, is telling,” said Mendoza.
The solution to the world’s problems is not anymore collective solidarity with the world’s oppressed and exploited peoples but in the individual’s ability to consume more and more Big Macs, Starbucks, Lacoste, Nikes, Louis Vuittons, and so on.
Here the individual is not simply consuming actual products but also the Hollywood-inspired middle class lifestyles and experiences represented and marketed by these commodities.
Banality of Bourgeois Existence
But the lack that the petty bourgeois seeks to fill can never be occupied as long as it is tied to the endless consumption of an excess of overproduced commodities that are continually marketed by global corporate monopolies.
The American dream remain out of reach regardless of their exertions. Without any firm convictions or visions of a systemic alternative to guide them, the middle classes see the self as consuming subject as the only guarantee of existence.
From which vantage point was the photo taken from? For whom is it intended for? Every photograph is an expression of a particular way of seeing.
With the advent of modernity in the 19th Century, we had Descartes’ cogito as the rational modern subject. “I think therefore I am.” Today this has been replaced with “I consume therefore I am.”
Lacking any solidarity to the oppressed and exploited peoples movement for systemic change, selfies as the image of this consuming subject are all that remain in the desert of the real.
“The Selfie shows the banality of the world. I am what appear. I am an image,” said Mendoza.
John Berger, Ways of Seeing. London: Penguin Books, 1972.
Jodi Dean, Blog Theory: Feedback and Capture in the Circuits of Drive. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2010.
Luis Jalandoni, “The Filipino People’s Struggle against Imperialist Domination and Repression,” Irish Anti-Imperialist Forum of 2013. Belfast, Ireland. June 14, 2013.